Sitting in Darkness: New South Fiction, Education,
And the Rise of Jim Crow Colonialism, 1865-1920
by Peter Schmidt
Complete Notes and Discussion for Chapter Four
Supplementing the print edition
1. “The teacher introduced [Bernard and Belgrave] into every needed field of knowledge… There were two studies in which the two rivals dug deep to see which could bring forth the richest treasures; and these gave coloring to the whole of their after lives. One, was the History of the United States, and the other, Rhetoric. In history, that portion that charmed them most was the story of the rebellion against the yoke of England…. As part of their rhetorical training, they were taught to declaim. Thanks to their absorption in the history of the Revolution, their minds ran to the sublime in literature; and they strove to secure pieces to declaim that recited the most heroic deeds of man, of whatever nationality. Leonidas, Marco Bozarris, Arnold Winklereid, Louis Kossuth, Robert Emmett, Martin Luther, Patrick Henry and such characters...” (Imperium 28-29).
2. It should be recorded that in areas of the U.S. South were there were large numbers of mulatto/a elites and/or blacks who were free before the War, there were some tensions within and among these communities about the changes Reconstruction brought. Such nuances are elided by both Griggs’ and Harper’s novels, to some extent, but these texts also reflect the fact that, increasingly in postwar discourse, both during Reconstruction and the New South, all variations of color and class became merged into “Negro” by the color-line. See Foner’s Reconstruction: the “Freedmen’s Bureau found many free blacks reluctant to send their children to school with former slaves.” However, because of the “coming together of blacks in an explosion of new institution building,” including schools, plus the “political and cultural fusion of former free blacks and former slaves,” Reconstruction “witnessed the birth of the modern black community” in the South (101-02). This birth is well represented in postwar fiction by Tourgée, Harper, and Griggs. Carla Peterson makes a strong case that after the war black leadership often first emerged around the issue of gaining more black teachers for black schools (Doers of the Word 200-01).
There is strong disagreement in Griggs criticism regarding whether Imperium is to be taken as a critique of Booker T. Washington or a validation of him, though most agree that the beliefs of the novel’s martyred hero, Bernard Belgrave, contain distinct parallels to Washington’s. For a sampling of such debate, see Elder (who stresses ways the novel validates Washington) vs. Hugh Gloster; Addison Gayle; and Jane Campbell. My own view is that Belgrave’s educational theories are closer to those of Du Bois than Washington in their emphasis on the liberal arts—especially literature, rhetoric, and philosophy, and social theory—rather than the practical arts. Yet as Addison Gayle has pointed out, Griggs was following an essentially Washingtonian program when he became “the first black writer to establish his own publishing company” (60). Elder’s balanced assessment is astute: “Fearful of ... explosive bitterness, Griggs insists that racial success or failure depends upon the quality of leadership his people develop” (75).
Although I honor Moses’s comment that Griggs is one of a number of writers representing what Ralph Ellison called the “pre-individualistic” phase of black writing (Moses 173; Ellison, Shadow and Act 95), I hope to give a different meaning to that phrase in this reading of Imperium, emphasizing as I do the novel’s exploration of the dangers of strong individuals swaying undifferentiated black masses. For an example of Griggs’ attraction to the idea of the necessity of strong leaders defining collective action, see his Life’s Demands, or According to Law (1916), and Moses on Griggs. Griggs’ later novels also contain examples of the dangers of demagoguery, such as the Rev. Josiah Nerve in Overshadowed (1901); note also the subtitle to his The Hindered Hand: or, The Reign of the Repressionist (1905).
For readings of Griggs’ Imperium that explore topics such as his use of historical references, his relationship to black novelists and intellectuals, and nineteenth-century black nationalism, see Moses, The Golden Age of Black Nationalism (172-90); Bell 60-63; Gayle 61-67; Elder 69-103; Campbell 42-52; Bruce, Black American Writing 161-63; and Karafilis, whose 2006 article probably represents the best currently available discussion of Imperium in its intellectual and political context. Other valuable articles Griggs’ Imperium include those by Tatham, Payne, Hedin, Wallinger, and Fabi.
3. Griggs criticism needs to consider the Tourgée connection more thoroughly, though of course not at the expense of discussing crucial predecessors like Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, David Walker, William Wells Brown, or Booker T. Washington.
4. For one history of debates on African colonization schemes, see Takaki Iron Cages 36-55; for accounts that emphasize the history of black political thought and activism, see Pease, Black Utopia; Moses; Robin Kelley; and Porter, Black Seminoles. Though the black Seminoles fought the U.S. Army in Florida and may have thought of Mexico as a sanctuary, when they went to Texas some Seminoles switched sides and worked for the U.S. Army as Indian scouts. Griggs may have been inspired by the earlier parts of the Seminole story, but whether or not her knew of the fate of the Seminoles in Texas needs more investigation. It is best to think of Griggs’ imagined black Imperium in Texas as a postcolonial reinvention of Sam Houston’s Texas republic for whites—as a sovereign, anti-colonial state ruled by blacks that finally fulfills some of the violated promises made to blacks during the Reconstruction era. In this regard, however, it may be noted that Bernard Belgrave’s black nationalist bravado is not without its colonialist roots: one of his schemes proposes to infiltrate the U.S. Navy, take it over from within, and use it to capture Texas and Louisiana, thus doing a Dewey-in-Manila via the port of Galveston, but this time in the name of black power, not white supremacy.